In her debut full-length poetry collection, Simple Weight
, a finalist for the 2010 FutureCycle Poetry Book Prize, Tania Runyan (Ruminate
contributor for Issue 16: Mapping This Place
and Issue 21: Grief
) distills, explores, and expands the weighty promise encapsulated in the Beatitudes and the relevance of that promise in our lives today. Her carefully arranged poems force us to slowly enter the complexities of Matthew 5 while serving as a guide and confidant for the rigors and revelations we will undoubtedly discover on our journey to the center. As with the ancient Jewish practice of Midrash (in Hebrew, “to investigate” or “study”), she explores the expansive possibilities of Scripture, searching beyond the frame of what is given to imagine how the pattern might continue to unfurl.
The collection begins with “Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit,” which opens with the terse confession, “I am not made to pray.” Here Runyan establishes the scope of what she will question, challenge, and revere for the rest of the book. In this poem she forces us to reconcile the everyday banalities of living—to “chew the name God, God
, like habitual / gum, think about dusting the shelves, then sleep”—with the incomprehensible, and largely intangible, divinity that “blasted my cells from a star.” Runyan’s exploration of the unimaginably large and distant alongside the dark wet earth of our existence makes us pause to consider the meeting point of these two apparent antitheses, and how each day we must again reckon with being made in the image of a divine and perfect being.
Indeed, “Mary at the Nativity” allows us to enter the mind of the mother of God herself, as she speaks of the 300 days she “carried rivers and cedars and mountains. / Stars spilled in my belly when he turned.” She wonders why the crowds of visitors simply stare at the infant Jesus
as if they expect him to suddenly
spill coins from his hands
or raise a gold scepter
and turn swine into angels.
For her, the greatest wonder is that of “the pink pebbles of his knuckles,” or how the very Son of God “wraps his finger around / my finger and holds on”; this small and simple act aligns each infant and parent with the unintelligible divinity of Jesus.
So how do we negotiate the “simple weight” that ties us to this ground, while striving to fulfill the commands and teachings of a God who, in a world of increasingly intangible relationships, can seem distant and often incomprehensible? In “Good Friday,” Runyan confesses the sin she writes out on paper and then nails to the cross in a church service: “I do not want / to know you.” Again she tries to pray, dreaming instead about gardens she is “too impatient to plant.” How can one, in this finite and tactile life, understand a God “who buries / his miracles in the soil”? Miracles that do not show themselves until the
of rain and decay
pushes them into
daybreak, when I
am still turning
into the darkness
of my pillow and expecting
nothing to grow.
Throughout the collection, Runyan slowly chips away at the masked or sentimentalized interpretations of what it means to adhere to and believe in the core promises of the Beatitudes and, by extension, the Gospel. She reveals to us what it may look like today for the meek in “For They Shall Inherit the Earth,” which describes the bitter reality of a child soldier who has “memorized the equation of trigger + blood = food,” and who “spill[s] out like water to the Lord,” with thousands of ants “encircling his neck like a chain of glittering onyx.” What, then, is the equation for salvation in this wilderness, which is certainly a far cry from the whispered prayer of repentance inside a church? And what greater offering can this child give, than that of his own body, spilled out like sweet perfume to the Lord?
And so Runyan presses us, and quite candidly her own self. The poems that fill the spaces between the blessing and promise of the Beatitudes strengthen and push us as we hungrily travel towards the next blessing, the hoped-for promise. Poems like “2086: Instructions for My Daughter’s Nurse,” “Stephen’s Stones,” “Growing Season,” “In Utero,” and so many others prime and orient the reader for what’s to come, helping us cope with the new depth we have just entered, are entering.
This collection of poems will not leave you unchanged or unmoved. Her “Shepherd at the Nativity” spends his life “trying not to love / such small things” and yet will inevitably
carry my new lambs and name them[,]
. . . bind their broken legs and search for them
in the foothills, until they are sold and worn,
served up, split open on an altar,
and I feel my own blood rushing to the edge.
These poems leave you no choice but to meet, and breach, that edge. Simple Weight, by Tania Runyan (FutureCycle Press, 2010)
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